Show Me The Money, Knight / by Robin Dienel

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The Northwestern University Knight Lab, an initiative developing innovative web tools for online journalists and storytellers, faces a daunting deadline in the next two years haunted by the thought: where will our future funding come from?

Richard Gordon, professor and director of digital innovation at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, was one of the first-round winners in the 2007 Knight News Challenge, which awards funds to journalism innovators. However, the Knight grant, like all grants virtually do, will eventually run out, and so will the main funding source for Knight Lab.

Gordon’s experience with online media traces back to his college days in the late 70s at the University of Pennsylvania, where in addition to being a managing editor of the schools newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian, he also took computer science courses. It was in those computer science courses, he says ironically, he received the worst grade in his college career.

Fortunately, in a time when desktop computers, or dumb terminals, were only used at newspapers to manage the workflow of an organization, Gordon says in a phone interview he was astute enough to see that, “whatever this computer thing was, it was going to be big.”

Following 20 years of various positions at newspapers up and down the East coast, Gordon moved to Chicago for a teaching position at Medill in 2000. When he first heard about the grant opportunity in 2005, Gordon says he believed, “we could, at Medill, propose to use some of the Knight News Challenge money to apply for, and get a News Challenge grant, to people in our journalism program with computer science backgrounds.”

After winning that $4.2 million grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Lab launched as a joint initiative between Medill and the Robert R. McCormick School for Engineering and Applied Science tasked with combining the two divergent worlds of journalism and computer science.

However, funding sources have been scarce over the past eight years. Other than relatively limited additional support from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and a small grant from Google, the Lab continues to operate primarily on that Knight money.

But the lab is still growing. What started as a small idealistic scholarship program tucked away in an overlooked room of the school’s engineering building in 2007, is now a brand new, full-fledged, bustling lab in the school’s communications building equipped with a full time staff of seven.

In the next couple years, regardless of its own internal growth and increasing popularity, the Knight grant will be up and the Knight Foundation will need to reconsider if it will continue to fund the Lab’s mission “to advance news media innovation and education.”

The Lab prides itself on providing free web-native tools for journalists supplied to journalists in its website’s “publishers toolbox.” The tools have been embedded hundreds of thousands of times on sites like RadioLab, VH1 and Al Jazeera America,according to the Lab’s website. It’s become a hub for both developers and journalists to come together and learn about the future of interactive web reporting.

Gordon hopes they’ve built a respectable enough reputation as a leader in online journalistic innovation to encourage more supplemental funding to help the lab continue to grow over the next few years. Without diverse funding from other investors, advertisers, or even subscribers, the future of the Lab after the Knight grant runs out is unclear.

“A lot does hinge on, in terms of year two, year three, what is our financial situation? Where does the money come from?” says Gordon. “I’d like to think we’ve built enough of a track record here, that one way or another, the lab will continue to operate for two or three or five more years, but it may be different then it is now.”